Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is a restless creative force, with endless musical projects as guitarist and producer, his own label and an accelerating sideline as an experimental filmmaker. In the past, he’s walked away from popular bands just to follow his muse into some unexpected directions, but says a brief reunion tour last year with At the Drive-In mattered more to him than many of us will ever know.
The raging, hard-rock quintet grew up together in El Paso, Texas, recorded for Beastie Boys‘ Grand Royal label, traveled the world and had a frenzied radio hit with “One Armed Scissor” before breaking up in 2001. Their reunion tour was short, but the band is active in other ways. This week came the wide release of reissues of ATDI’s 1996 album debut, Acrobatic Tenement, and the career-defining (and final release) Relationship of Command on their brand new label, Twenty-First Chapter.
At the Drive-In – which also includes singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar – have scattered to other projects, leaving the future unknown. The Mars Volta, the post-ATDI post-punk/prog act led by Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala, is officially broken up, too, but the guitarist is already deep into Bosnian Rainbows, his band with singer Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes. Next week, Bosnian Rainbows begin a European tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (plus a few dates in Texas and California) and release a self-titled debut album on June 25th.
Rodriguez-Lopez spoke with Rolling Stone about his new band, making music and movies and his eternal attachment to At the Drive-In.
A year ago, you were in the middle of a short reunion tour with At the Drive-In, starting with Coachella. How was that for you?
It’s the best thing that could have happened at that moment. For me personally, it was the most trying time in my life, the hardest obstacle to overcome in my life. In terms of being around loving people I grew up with, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.
What were you going through?
A week before having to get onstage, my mother passed away. I barely even talk about it now, a year later. At the time, just to get onstage was a chore. So I was around these guys, practicing in my friend’s garage. It couldn’t have been a better group of people to be with.
Is there something special about playing with guys you grew up with?
The level of trust and the feeling that a group of people truly know you can never be replaced. We spent seven years in that band. We grew up together, so it’s that feeling that these people truly love you. Right at the end of the band, we played our last show in L.A. at the Palace, and Wayne Kramer [of the MC5] said, “Man, you love these guys. You’ll go on to do many things in your life, but cherish these moments because it’s never like this again.” That sums it all up for me.
Was the plan always for a limited reunion of At the Drive-In, or is it open-ended?
We didn’t want to force anything. We had already been hanging out together over the years. We just decided to hang out more and eventually, OK, let’s hang out inside a room with musical instruments. That day, we realized this feels really good. Let’s not make plans and force anything on ourselves. We did one show, which was Coachella, taking it a step at a time. We only did about six shows: Coachella, Chicago, England, Spain, Japan and Australia. We could have booked the rest of the year playing At the Drive-In, but the main thing was, let’s finish the tour that we never got to finish [in 2001].
Is the band still active?
We don’t talk about it that way. It’s there; we have possibilities. Everybody’s doing something right now. Cedric has a record coming out, Tony and Jim in Sparta are doing stuff. We’re just trying to feel again when the moment opens up where nothing is forced and nothing is an obligation.
What inspired putting out these At the Drive-In reissues now?
We finally got our masters back. We were able to put that in the contract way back then, which we were really proud of. We just wanted them to be out again and reissue it on our own label – and make those records that were a little bit obscure more available. Maybe nobody will like it as much as us, but it’s the original version of Relationship of Command – the original board mixes. Every time we finished a song, the engineer would make a rough for us – it was coming straight off the two-inch [tape], so there was absolutely nothing added, and it was such an amazing sound.
Do you have a lot of reissues planned?
We only made three records and two EPs. It’s really the board mixes with a lot of cool pictures that Danielle Van Ark and Paul Drake took. Both were very close friends of ours and they were on the tour nonstop with us. But at the time we were together, we put out everything that we had. We loved our music so much that it was really hard for us to wrap our heads around what people called B-sides – stuff that didn’t make it to the album.
What made At the Drive-In special?
Our chemistry as people. The music is just a byproduct of the people involved. When you heard that music coming out of the speakers, the music was truthful. It was everything we loved about each other, that annoyed us about each other, our brotherhood. We did a five-month tour once – one of many times – and we slept on park benches and shared a bowl of beans and rice. That stuff is the very heart and soul of what you hear coming through the speakers.
It was announced recently that the Mars Volta has ended.
The band ended, but there’s still lots of music. Cedric has an incredible record coming out. We can look back on all the cool stuff we did together. It’s like At the Drive-In, with that realization that when you’re working with someone, you’re at your absolute best. With Mars Volta, I know for a fact now that the best stuff I did was because of what Cedric wrote. That’s what made it classic and memorable. I can’t talk about one with talking about the other, because that goes back all the way to when Cedric and I started hanging out every day. I learned almost everything I know about playing and the guitar from him and through the group. Then you go out in the world.
Not everyone is willing to walk away from a popular band to try different things, but it seems to come easy for you.
Yeah, because I’m most interested in living life. There is this hyper-awareness of success by numbers – the biggest fan base, the most tweeters or Facebooks. If you don’t equate high numbers with success, then it’s a whole different ballgame. And it’s good to have perspective. Look at what happened with At the Drive-In: having the time away from each other gave us immense perspective and understanding.
How did you end up doing Bosnian Rainbows?
You have to venture out and experiment. If you look at Mars Volta, with the long songs and elaborate arrangements, it would seem only natural in that context that it would be exciting to do something completely stripped down, short and to the point.
You also bring other people along, like Teri from Le Butcherettes, who is now the singer in Bosnian Rainbows.
That’s what’s exciting. Me working on the two Le Butcherettes records that we made, I’ve seen all her other compositions that weren’t necessarily right for that. We get to see different sides of each other, especially when you push each other. At the Drive-In was really great at always pushing each other. That communal experience – man, nothing can compare to it.
You have a Bosnian Rainbows record coming in June. How would you describe what you do with them that you don‘t in At the Drive-In or Mars Volta?
It was really inspired by my time in At the Drive-In. It’s a completely communal, collaborative experience, everybody’s writing bass lines, lyrics, drum lines, guitar lines. It’s that thing that we had then, but now being a little older and having learned a little bit more in the last 15 years. Long live the collective experience.
You recorded a new album as producer and bassist with Le Butcherettes a year ago that hasn‘t been released. What‘s happening with them?
We’re going to put it out. They’re really cool songs and we’d like fans of the band to hear it. [But] Bosnian Rainbows has a record coming out, so we’re going to be touring that.
Is Bosnian Rainbows taking up most of your time right now?
Yeah, that and filmmaking.
What are your plans as a filmmaker?
It’s that same spirit again – cinema is literally something you cannot do on your own. You can get greedy with music, and we’re living in the time of people making records in the bedroom and on laptops. But you can’t do it with cinema. You have to collaborate. You need various people and locations and weather. It’s awesome.